Human Rights Watch Faults US for Backing Afghan WarlordIn a report released on November 5, Human Rights Watch faulted the US-led coalition forces are actively backing a warlord in western Afghanistan with a disastrous human rights record.
The 51-page report, "All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan," documents widespread abuses by the military, police and intelligence services under the command of Ismail Khan, the local governor. The abuses include arbitrary and politically-motivated arrests, intimidation, extortion and torture, as well as serious violations of the rights to free expression and association.
"The international community says it wants to reduce the power of the warlords and bring law and order back to Afghanistan," said John Sifton, co-author of the report and a researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "But in Herat, it has done exactly the opposite. The friend of the international community in western Afghanistan is an enemy of human rights."
Ismail Khan has personally ordered some of the politically motivated arrests and beatings, which have taken place throughout 2002. The Human Rights Watch report documents beatings with thorny branches, sticks, cables, and rifle butts. The most serious cases of torture involved hanging detainees upside down, whipping and using electric shocks. Members of the Pashtun minority have been specially targeted for abuse.
Human Rights Watch reports that, earlier this year, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called on Ismail Khan during a visit to Herat, and afterward described him to reporters as "an appealing person."
"Much of the country is in the hands of violent commanders and their undisciplined troops," said Sifton. "The United States has even admitted providing warlords with weapons."
In Herat, Human Rights Watch researchers found a closed society in which there is virtually no dissent or criticism of the government, no independent newspapers, and no freedom to hold public meetings. Ismail Khan and his supporters have intimidated journalists and printers and stifled or controlled the few civic organizations they permit to exist. Non-political civic groups have stopped gathering, and university students refrain from discussing political issues.
"Herat has been known for centuries as a center of open culture, literature and learning," said Sifton. "The Taliban tried to destroy that. Now Ismail Khan is continuing their work."
Human Rights Watch noted that both the US and Iranian militaries have a presence in the area, regularly meet with Ismail Khan and members of his government, and have previously given military and financial assistance to Ismail Khan and other commanders allied with him. The president of Iran, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, has also visited Khan.
"The United States and Iran have a great deal of influence over Ismail Khan," said Sifton. "They put him where he is today. They now have a responsibility to make him clean up his act."
Human Rights Watch urged the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul so that warlords can be sidelined and an expanded UN human rights monitoring and protection operation can be deployed.
Because of previous US opposition and reluctance among other member states of the United Nations, expansion of the force has not taken place. But there are signs that the US now recognizes that its strategy of entrusting security to warlords could lead to renewed instability.
"The United States says that is has reconsidered its position about ISAF," says Sifton. "With the command of ISAF soon shifting to Germany and the Netherlands, now is the time to expand the [International Security Assistance] force."
UN Also CriticizedThe Human Rights Watch report criticizes the UN mission in Afghanistan for not doing enough to monitor and report on human rights abuses. The report urges the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Lakhdar Brahimi, to expand the United Nations' human rights monitoring efforts and to urge UN member states to supply troops and resources to expand ISAF to areas outside of Kabul.
"The United Nations says it is using a 'light footprint' approach in Afghanistan," said Sifton. "Clearly, this isn't working when it comes to human rights."
Human Rights Watch called on international donors to ensure that aid to Afghanistan is not channeled directly through Ismail Khan or his government. Instead, the aid should go through the national government, or nongovernmental organizations.
Human Rights Watch also urged governments to stop pinning all of their hopes for security in Afghanistan on the creation of a new Afghan army.
"Of course, training the future Afghan army is important, but it will have little or no impact in the short-term," said Sifton. "The people of Herat can't wait that long. It's time for the United States, the United Nations, and all the other actors involved in Afghanistan to sit down with President Karzai to come up with a real plan for security and human rights.
See the complete Human Rights Watch report.
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This story was published on November 9, 2002.